Published on 20 December 2018
Les managers de proximité souffriraient des ordres venus de supérieurs déconnectés des réalités de leur travail. Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Aurélie Dudézert, professor in management science and researcher in information system management at the Networks – Innovation – Space – Globalization laboratory (RITM-Université Paris-Sud, Université Paris-Saclay), draws a parallel between the protests of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) and those of middle managers in the business world.

For several weeks, the gilet jaune movement has intrigued politicians and journalists alike. Many articles and TV programmes have commented on and tried to understand the origin, causes and consequences of the movement. Initially a reaction to the rise of fuel taxes, the protests look more and more like the sign of a major crisis marking the end of an era and the dawn of a new world that our leaders have failed to understand.

A distinctive feature of the movement is that it does not involve a specific segment of the population, unlike the suburb riots in 2005 or even the student and worker movement in 1968. This movement gathers players from different social groups, united around what is commonly known as the middle class. While there is no clear, precise definition of ‘middle class’, the expression refers to individuals who feel neither truly rich, nor truly poor and play the part of intermediaries between two clearly identified worlds.

Middle managers, a diverse group

As a good management researcher, I connected that feature with a movement that is less visible but goes just as deep – that of middle managers in the business world. Their group is just as diverse as civil society’s middle class and these managers, too, are intermediaries caught between the employees to whom they give orders and the top managers whose orders they must implement.

While criticism regarding business policies has, until now, been voiced by employees, middle managers are joining the rebellion, particularly those tasked with supervising “autonomous managers” (cadres autonomes, or managers who have a certain autonomy in the organisation of their working hours). There is a palpable feeling of protest among these middle managers, directed at their leaders. Understanding these protests and the avenues considered to resolve them could, perhaps, contribute to shaping new responses to the gilet jaune movement.

Feeling of futility

According to an OpinionWay study for the Maison du Management published in 2018, 41% of managers now consider their role to be futile in the current working world. A more qualitative study that I helped to conduct between 2013 and 2018 within the Digitalisation and Organisation Club attached to the Association nationale de valorisation interdisciplinaire de la recherche en sciences humaines et sociales auprès des entreprises (ANVIE – National association for the cross-cutting promotion of human and science research for businesses), focusing on the managers of large French businesses, underlined that they may see their role as futile because its implementation is felt to be impossible in today’s businesses.

Middle managers have made a very simple observation: the supervision of employees’ work is based on ‘command and control’ – the planning and monitoring of tasks – which they find completely counterproductive and ineffective considering the evolution of working practices (versatility, adaptation, etc.) and team qualification levels (higher level of training, autonomy, etc.). However, it is that management model, based on reporting and the strict control and hierarchy of each process, that is hailed as legitimate by their superiors, the top managers, and which they must apply to their teams. That is why middle managers feel that their superiors are deeply disconnected from the reality of working practices, and thus that their position is unbearable.

Withdrawal as a protest

Consequently, for those managers, the tension between the supervisory procedures they now implement within their teams and the constraints of their own hierarchies, structured around the idea of ‘command and control’, is intolerable. There is a very tangible protest movement, which is either outright and ostentatious regarding businesses (maker movement), or covert, with middle managers increasingly taking on other professions and progressively withdrawing from their managerial work. Many books echo that frustration and anger and are now bestsellers, as testified by the success of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs or Nicolas Bouzou and Julia de Funès’ La comédie inhumaine. This movement has been brewing imperceptibly. According to the same OpinionWay study, 62% of employees now have no interest in becoming managers.

How should business directors react to such a situation? There are two possible ways. The first is the authoritarian stance, which rests upon two pillars: first, reiterating the relevance of a command-and-control‑based management model and strengthening centralising procedures and second, reminding middle managers of their roles. The second is indoctrination, revolving around seductive measures based on human resource marketing, whereby middle managers are offered superb new working spaces that foster friendliness, flexibility and fun.

Rallying around a common project

The authoritarian stance would be difficult to maintain in the long run, on one hand, because employees are not fools and can read into a fair number of marketing techniques, and, on the other, because by exerting greater control, businesses force out all competent middle managers who know how to rally their employees. That would inevitably affect the potential for innovation that businesses sorely need to ensure their presence on the market.

The second stance is riskier, but probably more profitable in the long run. It is a way to go back to the basics of the company’s enterprising project. It has been especially promoted by the Collège des Bernardins’ studies on re-founding businesses. In the words of Blanche Ségeste, professor at the Mines-ParisTech school for science, technology and management, “businesses are not only places for production - commercial entities - they are collective creation systems. They stem from the wish to build a desirable future. The question is not to manage society, but to think of a new use for resources”. In a nutshell, the crux of the matter is re‑founding managers’ authority not on procedures and the institution itself, but around the project that led a community of people to work together to achieve a common goal.

As for the other “middle” movement – that of the gilets jaunes – could that second path not be a source of inspiration for those leading the country?

Aurélie Dudézert is a professor in management science and researcher in information system management at the Networks – Innovation – Space – Globalization laboratory (RITM-Université Paris-Sud, Université Paris-Saclay).

The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.